If I told you that I’m five feet tall, in a sorority and a lover of nail art, would it surprise you if I also told you that I’ve taken part in a bodybuilding competition?
Like so many women in today’s society, I’ve struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. By the time I got to college, I had already tried Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, The Special K Diet, crazy soup diets… you name the diet, I’ve probably tried it. More notably, I also failed each once of them; every time I started a new one, I’d lose a few pounds… and gain it all back a few weeks later.
After finishing up my freshman year at the University of Central Florida, I decided I was ready to make a real change. My sister, a personal trainer who’d participated in bodybuilding competitions, opened my eyes to a new side of fitness. I started working with one of her friends, a coach specializing in bodybuilding contest training. Over the course of four months, I dropped nearly thirty pounds by adhering to a strict meal plan in conjunction with weight training and cardio.
When I starting seeing changes in my body and strength that came along with improvements in the gym, I started itching to compete in bodybuilding. You might be wondering why, with the assumption that bodybuilding is a sport exclusively for jacked meatheads on steroids. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Though bodybuilding is a sport perceived to be more appropriate for men, there are five categories that exist for women to compete in (at least in the National Physique Committee, the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the U.S.). Women can compete in one of the following divisions:
Bikini: Competitors are judged on balance and shape, and overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise and presentation.
Figure: Competitors are judged on overall muscle tone with shapely lines, overall firmness and lack of excessive leanness.
Fitness: Competitors are judged on their degree of athleticism including firmness, symmetry, proportion, and overall physical appearance. Competitors must also perform a two-minute choreographed routine displaying strength, flexibility, and creativity.
Physique: Competitors should display a toned, athletic physique showcasing femininity, muscle tone, and beauty/flow of physique. Competitors also perform a 90-second routine displaying particular mandatory poses.
Bodybuilding: Competitors are judged based on the NPC “total package,” which is a balance of size, symmetry and muscularity.
I competed in the fitness division on May 24, 2014 at the Jay Cutler Classic after a twenty-week prep filled with careful food manipulation and intense training in the gym. Fitness works a little differently than the other divisions because there are two segments to judging: posing and the routine. The routine is two minutes long, high-energy, strength-based and includes four mandatory moves: push up, high kick, straddle hold, and side split. The routine can really be anything you want it to be, but many competitors choose a theme to base their routine around (for music, costume, etc.). As an everyday yogi and someone with tons of performance background, fitness seemed like a perfect fit for me, because I already had the flexibility and ability to be comfortable on stage for the routine portion. Plus, it’s actually a ton of fun—my theme was Little Red Riding Hood!
Making time to prepare during a typically busy college schedule turned out to be easier than I thought. Of course, there were days when I had no desire to go to the gym, and passing up dessert with my friends sometimes tested my strength—but it soon became routine. I went to the gym at the same time each day, as if it were another class; it became a regular part of my schedule. Sunday became my day to cook all of my food in bulk, and throughout the week, I’d bring meals to campus with me.
Hearing the phrase “female bodybuilder,” or telling people you’re training for a bodybuilding competition, may have many raising an eyebrow. After all, the image that comes to mind is that of tanned, oiled-up guys in Speedos—but the definition of bodybuilding is simply “the practice of strengthening and enlarging the muscles of the body through exercise.” Many women fear the thought of building muscle—but women cannot get “bulky” strictly from lifting weights. We just don’t have the necessary hormones to do so. Take a look at elite female athletes, such as Ronda Rousey, a UFC fighter and one of the best in her sport. That’s someone who spends her entire life in the gym and she is nowhere near “bulky” (especially if you compare her to men in the same sport), so the average woman really has no reason to worry.
Throughout my training, I am lucky to say that I experienced very little gender discrimination—but it does exist. I always got a few looks when I was the only girl in a weight room full of guys, and there was the occasional man who would make a comment like, “Damn girl, I don’t want to mess with you,” as if he were shocked that a woman could be strong. Having that strength, though, is when I feel my best and most beautiful self: when I’m in the weight room shoulder pressing just as much as (or maybe more than) the guy next to me.
Though the day-to-day discrimination was subtle, one of the biggest downfalls in the world of female bodybuilding is the way in which it sexualizes women. Just take a look at the popular Instagram hashtags #fitspiration, #fitfam and #igfitness—you’ll see nearly naked girls, posed in seductive ways displaying their rock-hard abs and perfectly shaped glutes. When you’ve got a body that you’ve worked so hard for, you of course want to show it off—but a woman’s strength shouldn’t be about sex appeal.
As of now, I don’t have any future plans to compete in another show. For now, I’m soaking up my last semester in college, developing my business Fit University, eating delicious and nutritious food—and I’m still lifting multiple days a week. Health and fitness will always be a main priority in my life because of the way the results make me feel: happy, energized and motivated. My experience in bodybuilding showed me that strength is the key to loving myself and my body. I once turned to diet and fitness for the sake of weight loss. Now, I’ll take strong over skinny any day.
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